Bison farmers ‘at top of our game’ for grilling season
Personal chef Will Supik of Baltimore was sourcing healthy options for clients when he discovered meat said to be much lower in fat and calories, slightly lower in cholesterol and higher in iron and vitamin B-12 than pork, poultry and beef.
Bison, or American buffalo, is “juicy, punctuous,” a “no-brainer” for adding to client menus, Supik said. He scoured the Internet and found the breed more often associated with the Great Plains available at a Maryland farm.
“I was kind of agog,” Supik said of the species that is particularly popular during the summer grilling season.
The bison, as the American Buffalo is known, rises as much as six feet or more at the hump, weighs as much as a ton and is in the bovine, not the buffalo, family. The breed is the only native North American wild cattle species, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Bison once thrived on drought-resistant plants throughout the country, according to the Eastern Bison Association.
Of 1,775 bison farms that the 2017 USDA Agricultural Census shows exist nationwide, 22 are between New Jersey and Virginia and 58 reside in Pennsylvania. Some of the region’s bison farmers breed, raise and finish their herds while others send them elsewhere for finishing or just do the finishing alone. Association membership is intended to provide an education on the species and its restoration.
Centuries ago, bison numbered some 60 million and, as a result of habitat change and hunting, by 1889 declined to around 1,000, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“If it wasn’t for farming bison, the breed would be extinct,” Shane Robbins, a New Jersey owner of West Virginia-based Buck Wild Bison said.
With increasing numbers of people eating healthier, Robbins and Eastern Bison Association Mid-Atlantic Region Director Quinn Kahrig said there’s more of a demand for bison than there is a supply to satisfy it.
Robbins buys bison through the Buffalo Shoppe east of the Poconos in Pennsylvania. He plans within a couple of years to have his own farm established in Cumberland County, N.J., on land his company owns, he said.
Roaming Acres’ 60-plus head herd in Montclair, N.J., was at 20 in 2012 according to Market Manager Michele Adams. The herd is part of what the agricultural census shows was in 2017 a total nationwide herd of 975 head with sales of 260 valued at $372,000.
“Right now, we’re at the top of our game for the year with the grilling season,” Robin Evick, Market Manager for Gunpowder Bison in Monkton, Md., said. “It’s probably our busiest time.”
Gunpowder Bison serves wholesale grocery store and restaurant customers throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and sells the meat in filets, sausages and prepared dishes such as bison bourguignon on the Internet, at the JFX Farmers Market in Baltimore and at an on-farm retail store, Evick said.
Buyers especially enjoy the sausages that are available in a wide range of varieties that include hot, sweet Italian, chorizo, beer cheddar brats and frankfurters, she said. Consumers also tend to graduate from burgers to steaks, Evick said.
Where Adams of Roaming Acres, said that bison steaks and burgers do especially well at New York City markets Evick said that many chefs and “foodies” attend the JFX market.
Using antibiotics and growth hormones on bison is federally prohibited, according to the USDA. Bison meat is also pricier than traditional beef.
Breeding, raising and finishing bison requires hefty fencing and chutes that are double the size of a cattle chute, Robbins said.
Many farmers practice rotational grazing and finish the bison with grains for marbling specks, though Emily Wieder of Backyard Bison in Coopersburg, Pa., said that her father, Ron, uses a mixture of pasture, oats and molasses as well as hay in winter.
Parasites can be a challenge for eastern bison farmers, and some work with veterinarians, Kahrig said. Others such as Backyard Bison’s Ron Wieder handle deworming and topical treatments for flies on their own, Emily Wieder said. Ron Wieder also allows the farm’s bison to breed naturally, she said.
“When a bull starts chasing a certain cow, he’s able to guess with some accuracy when it’ll have a baby,” Emily Wieder said.
Bulls can be especially aggressive, farmers said. The breed can also jump like deer and outmaneuver horses, according to the USDA. Farms tend to send bison to the butcher at age two or older.
Several farmers in the Mid-Atlantic share a common post-slaughter processor: Nello’s Meats in Nazareth, Pa. The facility is owned by Nello Loiacono – “the best sausage maker around,” according to Robbins.
Loiacono said he was trained by a German wurstmonger from Bavaria and that he works with his customers to determine how he can best accommodate their customers.
Loiacono adds spices, transforms them into the bratwurst, Italian and Mexican sausages, the cheddar and sauerkraut-filled frankfurters, the Fellino salami and the jerky that customers ultimately buy.
The spices, more than the meat, change the red meat flavor profile, Loiacono said, who called his processing style “old school” and said that he dry cures salami the artisan way.
“I keep to the areas that they originated from,” he said.
The difference in processing bison as compared with other types of meat is that bison are built differently, Loiacono said, Because of that, he said, most of the meat is from the hind end and loins and less is from the front quarter.
Loiacono said he pays to have the bison that he processes undergo voluntary USDA inspections that the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service handles on a carcass-by-carcass basis.
Bison is not graded, the USDA added. A triangle-shaped seal ensures the meat is wholesome and free from disease, according to the agency.
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